Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble brings attention to the art of soundpainting at Zoellner Arts Center on Feb. 2, 2023. The performers include dancers, singers, actors and musicians, all of whom interpret the signals in their own unique way. (Kate Turkeltaub/B&W Staff)

The art of soundpainting: bringing community ideas to life


From the alleged ghosts in Drown Hall to Oktoberfest’s dachshund races at the SteelStacks, Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble is bringing Bethlehem peculiarities to life through soundpainting.

Strike Anywhere is hosting soundpainting workshops, including programming they held from Jan. 30 to Feb. 3, as part of a three-semester residency at Zoellner Arts Center.

Leese Walker, artistic director and conductor of the ensemble, said soundpainting is a sign language for the live composition of improvised performance. Performers include dancers, singers, actors and musicians, all of whom interpret the signals in their own way.

First established in New York City in 1997, Walker said, the ensemble is now one of five certified soundpainting ensembles in the country. 

Prior to the formation of the group, Walker said she worked closely with the creator of soundpainting, Walter Thompson, who asked her to help him adapt the language from being for musicians to including actors, as well. Since then, soundpainting has spread outside to over 35 countries. 

Soundpainting performance aims to engage viewers, as the performers typically ask the audience questions to inspire their performance. 

At the beginning of one workshop at Zoellner, the ensemble asked students about their favorite local places, rumors or secrets they’ve heard, and the coolest experiences they’ve had in Bethlehem. 

Using the students’ answers, the ensemble performed a piece that alluded to the Oktoberfest dachshund races, ghost encounters in Drown Hall, the burritos at Tulum Restaurant and the Bethlehem North Side versus South Side debate. The performers ran around the stage like dogs and acted as if they were seeing ghosts, who they fed burritos.

Walker said the best performances come when your mind is blank and you don’t have preconceptions you want to make happen.

“You’re just open and then the ensemble offers something, and that’s the thread for the piece,” Walker said. “There’s always the surprises and mistakes — you could call them mistakes, but they end up being the gold of the piece.”

On Feb. 2, 2023, Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble performs at Zoellner Arts Center to showcase soundpainting. Soundpainting is a live composing language of hand signs and motions used to guide performers in live, improvised art on stage. (Kate Turkeltaub/B&W Staff)

At these workshops, viewers can expect to not only watch a performance, but participate. Audience members are incorporated through acting exercises, group counting and scene creations. They are also given the opportunity to learn the language of soundpainting. 

There are over 1,500 hand gestures in the language, Walker said, which signify to performers to start, stop, change places, freeze or vocalize. 

After watching the conductor throughout the performance, students are free to express themselves through movement and sound using their newfound knowledge of soundpainting. 

“I just thought it was a really good opportunity for both theater students (and) students from all walks of life on campus to experience improv and soundpainting at Lehigh,” Julian Abergas, ‘24, said. “Non-theater people were there and they were having a great time.”

Campus Engagement manager Adam Ercolani said he worked on engaging as many people as possible in the event, on campus and beyond. 

Throughout the week of the event, the ensemble hosted workshops for students in the Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges and Bethlehem residents at the Bethlehem Public Library. 

As a theater artist, Ercolani said he was familiar with some of the acting exercises they did but learning about soundpainting was new.

“This was an educational experience for me, as well, to learn about that world of performance art,” Ercolani said. “I really love being able to do this kind of thing, alongside students especially.” 

Ercolani said the Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble will return to Lehigh fall 2023 to interview more community members about their lives in Bethlehem and tell their diverse stories.

The following winter, Walker said they will use the information they gathered from the interviews to perform choreography and scenes around Bethlehem.

The ensemble will design a handmade “memory map” that has pictures of places mentioned in the interviews. In April 2024, they will perform their show “POP UP: An Artistic Adventure,” which will be a treasure hunt of pop-up performances around Bethlehem that will animate the dreams and memories of the community.

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